Torture horror cycle gets a second spin with star-heavy Spiral

The horror genre tends to run in cycles. The slasher movies of the ’80s gave way to psychological thrillers in the ’90s, which in turn led to multiple films utilizing “found footage” and then torture porn. That last one was especially prolific in the late 2000s, with six films in as many years coming from the Saw series.

Even though 2010’s entry was named Saw: The Final Chapter (aka Saw 3D), we all know that nothing stays dead in the horror genre. The series returned with Jigsaw in 2017, and now it’s back in another form with Spiral, subtitled From the Book of Saw. This time around, it’s police who are being hunted by a possible copycat killer of Jigsaw, with Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) leading the way trying to track the killer down.

Zeke, however, has a lot of baggage attached to him. As a younger beat cop, he turned in his partner for killing a man without provocation, getting Zeke shunned by most of his fellow officers. He’s also the son of former police chief Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson), and is now being paired with a detective-in-training, William Schenk (Max Minghella). Zeke’s history comes back to haunt him as it becomes clear that he and the killer are using vastly different methods to accomplish the same goal: Get rid of dirty cops.

Directed by Saw veteran Darren Lynn Bousman and written by Jigsaw writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger, the film treads familiar ground while offering a little something new. While the specter of Jigsaw’s legacy looms over the entire film, it’s the first film in the series not to deal with him directly. Instead, the killer uses his tricks – the tape recordings, the pig head mask, and the diabolical torture devices – to emulate him in almost every way.

The whole point of a Saw film is to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible, and the kill scenes certainly do the trick, with victims faced with impossible choices that lead to gruesome results. Ideally, those scenes would be the culmination of suspenseful sequences set in motion by solid storytelling. However, as has been the case throughout the series, the writers have no skill in setting their story up, forcing their actors to bumble their way through clunky, often laughable dialogue.

The best they come to being clever is an early scene where Rock delivers a diatribe about Forrest Gump that calls to mind the pop culture riffs of Quentin Tarantino in the ’90s. They also have Rock throw out a New Jack City reference at one point, which is somewhat funny since Rock was in that 1991 movie. However, having a character talk about 30-year-old movies only shows how the writers have failed to move forward in their storytelling abilities.

Rock makes for a decent lead, but the emotional range of the character is a bit beyond his talents. Every time he’s called upon to be extra angry or upset, his believability factor goes down. Marcus’ coworkers are mostly one-note characters, so none of the actors stand out in any way. Minghella, known mostly for his roles in The Mindy Project or The Handmaid’s Tale, has a nice turn, though. And Jackson is typical Jackson, sprinkling in expletives like he invented them.

Saw movies have always been for a certain kind of moviegoer and their willingness to endure the sight of torture for their entertainment. Spiral, like all the other films in the series, is not a pleasant experience, but if it succeeds at the box office, it could be the start of another cycle for the always-popular horror genre.

Spiral opens in theaters on May 14.

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